Haze Crisis and What ASEAN Can Do

Haze crisis in Southeast Asia is not something new. It happens annually, usually starts in June and stops as season changes and rain comes, which is around September or October. The cause is clear, and that is the burning of forest and petlands in Sumatera and Kalimantan, Indonesia.  Yet its impacts on both the originating country and its neighbours have worsened each year. The situation is particularly bad now as one report stated that the 2015 fires have emitted enough greenhouse gases to rival Germany’s annual output of CO2.  In Sumatera and Kalimantan at least 25.6 million people are exposed to unhealthy air. The thick and lingering smoke causes limited visibility of merely 20 meters. The haze crisis is also affecting Singapore, Malaysia, the Phillipines, and even the Eastern islands in Indonesia.  The severity of it brings six provinces in Indonesia to declare the crisis a state emergency.

As this annual and actually preventable disaster severe implications to the aspect of health and livelihoods of the populations of many ASEAN member states, should ASEAN do something to address this issue? But what can ASEAN do?

The answer to the first question is of course, yes, ASEAN should do something.  The haze crisis is an incident that requires a concerted effort. Smokes know no boundaries, thus there is little a single authority could do to alleviate the haze problem except to advise residents to stay indoors, to wear masks and to hope that the wind could change direction soon or for the rain to start . Desperate measures as such are obviously insufficient, especially because at the ASEAN level there is a specific agreement that addresses this very transnational problem.

In 2002, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was declared. The Agreement is made to be legally binding, a rare quality for ASEAN that is well-known for its non-interference policy. It is ratified by 10 member states and Indonesia is the last one to have ratified this agreement. It requires the Parties: (i) cooperate in developing and implementing measures to prevent, monitor, and mitigate transboundary haze pollution by controlling sources of land and/or forest fires, development of monitoring, assessment and early warning systems, exchange of information and technology, and the provision of mutual assistance; (ii) respond promptly to a request for relevant information sought by a State or States that are or may be affected by such transboundary haze pollution, with a view to minimising the consequence of the transboundary haze pollution; and (iii) take legal, administrative and/ or other measures to implement their obligations under the Agreement. Read More …

Four Possible Tests for Studying Minority Rights

In Southeast Asia, the debate on the rights of ethnocultural groups within multicultural societies has changed dramatically, both in its scope and its basic terminology. Before mid-1990s there were very few researchers working on the subject and the issue of minority has been seen as marginal. Following the monetary crisis of 1997, after years of relative neglect, the question of minority rights has moved to the forefront of political debates.

One of the most obvious reasons is the political restructuration occurred after the monetary crisis has changed the power landscape in Southeast Asian countries and affected their democratisation processes. Optimistic assumptions that transitions to democracy would emerge smoothly from the ashes of authoritarianism in some countries were derailed by the politics of ethnicity or indigeneity. The nativists backlash against majority concerning the distribution of benefits, the resurgence and political mobilisation of indigenous peoples to secure access to natural resources, and the ongoing, even growing, threat of secession within several Southeast Asian countries, for instances Indonesia (West Papua), Myanmar (Rohingya), Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), and the Philippines (Moro), demonstrate the salience of minority issues.

At the same time, these movements have also gained their momentum and significance in international and regional politics. In 2007, resulting from relentless and organised global activisms, the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations. Recently the question of Rohingya refugees is shaking the politics in Southeast Asian countries, especially Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, as well in ASEAN.

Two things are made clear here. First is that the transitional process to democracy needs not only to concern with liberal questions such as individual freedom, autonomy as well as socio-economic equality, but also to overcome the tensions raised by ethnocultural diversity and collective interests. Second is that there are powerful contesting external and internal forces resulting from globalised networks, free movements of actors and norms, which tend to blur and merge universal liberal principles with particularistic sentiments, identities and aspirations.

Inquiries on minority rights that relate them to the underlying principles of liberal democracy, such as individual freedom, autonomy and socio-economic equality, are thus needed. Such research might aim at investigating how minority rights are imagined and represented in normative considerations and political strategies. In the context of Southeast Asia, these studies could possibly examine and test the following hypothesis:

  1. Minority rights exist because individuals find it worthwhile to maintain existing cultural practices in life.
  2. Minority rights would support, rather than undermine, individual autonomy.
  3. To protect minority rights, states should be neutral with respect to ethno-cultural identities of their citizens.
  4. Recognising minority rights promotes solidarity and secures political stability.

Scholarly reportings on minority groups in Southeast Asia often focus on the raise of ethnic/indigenous politics and the political economy of ethnicity/indigeneity. Studies that specifically scrutinise minority rights within the interfaces of universal liberal principles and particular collective interests are scanty. Furthermore, studying minority rights in Southeast Asia this way would shed a new light on contemporary interfaces of contesting normative and political forces, which occupy the area between individualism and collectivism as well as universalism and particularism. A region that is experiencing a transitional process towards democracy might present wider socio-political spaces that could create opportunities for fresh dialectical dynamics. Compared to established democracies, where norms pertaining to freedoms and entitlements are already delineated and institutionalised, case studies from Southeast Asia would offer valuable comprehensions with regard to norms interpretations and their practices.

Democracy and Human Rights in Southeast Asia

The new issue of Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs contains articles addressing the ASEAN human rights bodies, the practice of human rights and the pragmatic and shifting process of democratisation in Southeast Asian countries.

The edition includes the following research papers:

Institutionalisation of Human Rights in ASEAN

This paper addresses the continuing process of institutionalising human rights in the ASEAN system. It examines the substantive and procedural contexts to capture the dynamics of contesting human rights and the evolving conceptualisation of human rights in the region. The analysis of different actors and factors demonstrates that the considerable efforts towards a stronger enforcement for human rights are made based on the interplay between the logical and concessional processes in ASEAN.

I wrote this paper to contribute to the special volume published in honor of my promotor, Professor Fried van Hoof. A copy of the publication can be downloaded on my SSRN page.